More than a decade of grousing about product management

Rockstar Product Managers

a rock band playing on stage
Rocking out!

The scarcity of true rockstar product managers and the need to focus on nurturing and developing talent.

I read a post today by Tom Leung on his blog, “Always be Shipping1” that got me thinking. The premise of the posting was that only superstars need to apply. As someone in my earlier days who viewed himself with many of the qualities that are being sought, and to a large degree still lives up to the standard portrayed, I have come to the conclusion that there are few true rockstars out there in product management. Yes they do exist. Yes, they can be found. They are expensive, but if you ask their bosses, they are worth every penny. However, if your business plan is dependent upon finding one (or more than one), you will wait a long time to acquire talent, and you may suffer while waiting for a “Rockstar” to arrive.

I also recently read something that made me think of this concept. “Freakonomics” by Steven Leavitt, wherein he described a case study of the inside view of a drug dealing gang in the crack cocaine wars of the 1990’s. In it, he analyzes the motivations and the pyramid of the organization. A top boss, a tier of trusted members (like a senior staff), a tier of feet on the street, all atop a massive pile of foot-soldiers, who are largely unpaid. The foot soldiers endure miserable conditions, exploitation, and personal, physical danger to have a chance to grasp at the big time and become the “Big Dog”. He goes on to compare this to Music (where very few of the budding musicians ever make any money, regardless of talent), sports (where high school and college athletes risk destroying their health and future for a chance at the “pros”) and acting (where most of the aspiring talent waits tables and then gets the hint, leaving the fold).

So, why do we not have a similar experience in Product Management? Where there is not a huge farm system of talent clamoring for a shot at the “Product Management” glory? Clearly, there are product managers who exemplify the field. If you follow the literature, product management has made great strides in the last decade, has spawned an industry of support (280 Group, Blackblot, Pragmatic Marketing) that is an outlet for the talent to extend their influence, and their personal achievements beyond adding another company to their CV. But still, most product managers fall in to the position from unrelated fields. The fact of the matter is that education at university doesn’t prepare a PM for the job, and that many people who dabble in it either quickly decide it isn’t for them (an OK realization, I would make a terrible sales person, and I am not ashamed to admit it), or fail miserably becoming a negative reference for the field.

Can we get to a point where there is a pyramid of talent? A pipeline of qualified, capable staff who look forward eagerly to their being called up to the ‘show? My guess is that we will continue to beg, borrow, steal good people, and the true rockstars that Tom is seeking will remain few, and in high demand. We need to focus on the lower rungs, their success, and how we can ensure that qualified players get the nurturing and growth opportunities that will help them thrive, extending the art of Product Management.

  1. Alas, the link for this went kaput. It was a post about how this founder went on a quest for the upper crust of elite product people, because that is what makes a good idea into a great start up.
    Spare me, this is rubbish. ↩︎
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A crusty veteran from the product management trenches. Plenty of salty language, references to cannabis, and a connoisseur of White Russian cocktails

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Written by pmdude